Yesterday morning dawned bright and clear across most of Britain and Ireland, but apparently not in deepest darkest Lincolnshire. This must have caused great despondency amongst the planners at the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at RAF Coningsby because yesterday, Saturday 6 September, was the first day in a weekend which had been scheduled for months to be the one of the busiest for the world’s last two flying Lancaster bombers. One of these (nicknamed Thumper) belongs to the BBMF and lives at Coningsby, the other (Vera) is owned by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, and has been over in Britain for the last month visiting its cousin and participating in a number of joint displays. Crowds up and down the country have oohed and aahed as the pair have swooped low over wartime airfields. Black tie dinners have been held under their wings. Grown men have been seen in tears.
But yesterday, all flying had to be cancelled as it was far too foggy and wet for the pair to be allowed to take off. Much consternation up and down the land. Twitter was abuzz. Facebook was full of queries.
Fortunately, there is nothing that our chaps in the services like more than a challenge. Could they shoehorn most of the BBMF’s scheduled appearances over two days into one busier-than-ever Sunday? Well, of course they could. Here is a map showing just how much of northern England, southern Scotland and northern Ireland the elderly pair covered just this afternoon. Bear in mind they had done a similar loop between 0900 and 1300 this morning.
From my point of view, I was particularly pleased that the hour taken to fly the two Lancasters and their Spitfire escorts across the Irish Sea to display to a huge crowd on Portrush Strand had remained in the schedule. This was the only chance that anyone living on the island of Ireland would have to see them – and their appearance this side of the water was a fitting tribute to the hundreds of aircrew from north and south who had served in the RAF during the Second World War. One of these was a native of Derry, rear gunner Richard Bolitho, who took part in the Dams Raid and was killed when his aircraft, piloted by Bill Astell, collided with a pylon near Marbeck in Germany, en route to the Möhne Dam.
Richard Bolitho on the left, pictured with colleagues during his gunnery training. [Pic: Bate family]
Was it worth the 300 mile round trip to spend 15 minutes on a beachfront staring into the sky at two aircraft built some 70 years ago? Like hell it was. It was a chance to connect with my family’s history as well as that of the nation, and to reflect on both. The Lancaster bomber has rightly become a symbol of the triumph of freedom over tyranny in a war whose shared memory is now fading from view, as those who fought in it – or even recall it – pass on. Long may this elderly pair soar in the skies – above our islands, and also above the vast Canadian plains and mountains. It was a privilege to see them both on this day, 7 September 2014, and many thanks are due to all those who made it possible.
More pictures from today at Airwaves Portrush from the organisers, Coleraine Borough Council.